The one thing people eventually learn at the highest levels of commerce, sport and government is the art of damage control.
Daryl Katz, owner of the Edmonton Oilers, went into full-scale damage-control mode over the weekend, apologizing (sort of) for mishandling a critical moment in his negotiations with Edmonton city council over how to finance a new downtown arena project.
Katz had grown frustrated with the slow pace of progress (he said) and thus made a veiled threat to move the team to Seattle if he didn't get his way. Not smart. To say the matter was handled clumsily would be an understatement.
The backlash was immediate, profound and telling. Not a lot of taxpayers are in the mood to hand billionaire owners of sports teams additional concessions in a deal that already includes a significant contribution from government. Full-page ads in both the Edmonton Journal and Sun outlined Katz's plea for forgiveness, which focused mainly on how clumsily the whole thing was handled. A virtual recluse, someone who guards his private life closely, he just isn't media savvy, don't you know. Well...okay.
It doesn't change the fundamental problem, which is how to find a meaningful middle ground that will satisfy taxpayers and the council members that represent those taxpayers. That mandate gets lost in the shuffle sometimes. Governments, at whatever level, are supposed to reflect the views of its constituents. I'd be interested in knowing how much input members of Edmonton's city council are getting from the taxpayers they represent on this project.
My guess is that the majority of Edmonton residents can see the value of the new arena project as part of an overall downtown revitalization strategy as long as its not so heavily weighted on the taxpayers' backs. Not everybody cares about the Oilers, but if a new downtown arena also brings the surrounding area back to life - and mitigates somewhat Edmonton's issue with urban sprawl - there is a value to that.
It sounded as if the two sides had a deal in place and then it started to unravel because costs escalated, and neither side wanted to put another dime into the pot. So what was a $450-million project now is heading in the direction of a $475-million project and maybe what they need to do is make the numbers go in the opposite direction - say down to $425-million.
Maybe that's a figure they can live with. If doing away with a few extras is the difference in getting a deal done or not, then dropping two bells and three whistles might be an appropriate compromise, especially if it keeps the Oilers in Edmonton where, let's face it, they belong.
Seattle lost its first baseball team, the Pilots, to Milwaukee. Seattle lost its first basketball team, the SuperSonics, to Oklahoma City. It can be a fickle sports town and to think that any NHL team that settles there, via relocation or expansion, will be an automatic success is the height of naivete. The NHL has a lot of bad markets. It doesn't need to lose one of its good ones.